Review: Billy Elliot for What’s On Stage. Full unedited version. Curve Leicester

I wrote a full Billy Elliot review for What’s On Stage which has been edited down to a shorter, less detailed online version and I loved the show so much I just wanted an opportunity to share the full version with our readers on East Midlands Theatre. Phil Lowe.

Here it is:

Billy Elliot.

Curve

21st July 2022

Curve’s ambitious new Billy Elliot musical sparkles (and shines) like a theatrical diamond amongst the dark coal seams and Northern grit. In Lee Hall and Elton John’s dynamic County Durham based show about 1980s social and political struggle in the strike riven mining industry, with the Tory government hell bent on community and industrial, division and destruction, young Billy Elliot, an eleven year-old miner’s son, bucks the trends and dumps his boxing gloves and the boxing ring for dance shoes and the barre.

This may be a show about loss and deep precarity but there is nothing at all precarious about Nikolai Foster’s utterly stunning new direction and Lucy Hind’s cleverly insightful natural movement-based choreography. Michael Taylor’s inspired theatrical set design is a wonder to behold and Ben Cracknell’s expressively brilliant lighting design shows perfectly why Cracknell is often the go to designer for Curve in Leicester. Edd Lindley’s costume design takes us instantly back to the 80s. Adam Fisher’s sound design totally hits the spot and the combination of Martin Koch’s orchestrations and musical director George Dyer and his hidden on-stage band make Curve’s Billy Elliot a sublime emotional rollercoaster musical experience. Curve’s Incredible new Billy Elliot with its key themes of hard social struggle and hard-won artistic ambition adds an indelible stamp (and stomp) on the admirable and expanding legacy of Made At Curve shows. It is lyrical, visually poetic, has robust humour and is profoundly moving in equal measure.

Curve has a reputation for their fresh interpretations of well-known musicals and turning them, and our audience expectations, delightfully on their heads and much more.  Nikolai Foster’s brand- new epic production of Billy Elliot is no exception with its storyline of mining communities fighting against injustice. It is steely, with portable wire fences of acid yellow, stripped back, and so industrial you can almost taste the coal dust. Billy Elliot has a tangible rawness of the human condition at its loudly beating heart and hits both the visceral nerves and conversely, very often, our funny bones. As dark humour goes Lee Hall’s book and lyrics shine brighter than any colliers’ lamp with their caustic reactions to personal stresses and political strife.

Against all this, press night’s Billy (Jaden Shentall-Lee) discovers a love of, and a talent for dance against pugilism. His growing open-minded friendship with Michael (Prem Masani) is very touching. His relationship with straight-speaking, ciggy chuffing, ballet teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (Sally Ann Triplett) are what brings the theatre punters in and they are richly rewarded. Sally Ann Triplett is a high-class talent that any show would be proud to cast her in and in this Billy Elliot she is exceptionally good. So good that kids in the audience will be begging their parents for 50p to join Mrs Wilkinson’s, no prisoners taken, fictional ballet class. You never know, with the right application, determination and talent they too could become stars of the stage, like Billy and like Sally Ann Triplett. As Billy’s dead mam Jessica Daley pulls on the heart strings and makes us all wish we had somebody like Mam watching over us and willing us to succeed from beyond.

The large cast sing their anthemic and emotional hearts out to perfection. The lovable kids (and there are thirty of them – mostly from Leicester) are as far from the glossy Stage School world as a working-class miner’s gardenless home in Easington is from the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden. To quote Foster, the choice to cast the local children is, “The rewards are huge. This has been a great opportunity to really reach out to our community in Leicester and get young people on to the stage.” The Billy Elliot kids cast are a joy to behold and are used consistently through the show and add greatly to its appeal.

A proper sense of community is what comes across in this new production, the community of Easington and the close community of actors playing the roles. There is an undefinable bond evident on stage. The large cast has its strength in the ensemble playing and its fantastic main leads Joe Caffrey (Jackie Elliot), Jessica Daley (Billy’s Mam), Rachel Izen (Grandma Edna), Sally Ann Triplett (Mrs Wilkinson) and strong support from Minal Patel (Big Davey), Cameron Johnson (Mr Braithwaite), Craig Armstrong (George), Luke Baker (Tony) and a star dancing turn from William Atkinson as Older Billy. The main young people’s roles of Billy, Michael and Debbie have been cast with four actors in each role throughout the run and press nights’ Billy (Jaden Shentall-Lee), Michael (Prem Masani) and Debbie (Pearl Ball) are all wonderfully expressive in their portrayals. We find ourselves mentally alongside them, navigating the adult miners’ strike of the mid 80’s through the eyes and minds of the children. Shentall- Lee’s tour de force dancing is exceptional.

Billy Elliot is the perfect musical and no-one could fail to moved and entertained with a song list comprised of The Stars Look Down, Solidarity, Expressing Yourself, Dear Billy (Mam’s letter), Born To Boogie, Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher, Deep Into The Ground, He Could Be A Star, Electricity, Once We Were Kings and heart-breaking final song Dear Billy (Billy’s reply). Curve’s cast give each number the perfect amount of welly, gravity or subtlety it requires and then more. It’s a show that many local people will be able to connect with as it is based on a firm bed of not-so-distant historical working-class mining upheaval and Leicestershire itself had its unfair share of pit closures. Tissues should be given out at the door to prevent a flood of wet sleeves moments and runny mascara disasters. And that’s just the men.

Curve’s Billy Elliot is an unapologetically genuine ‘must see’ and runs until 20th August.

Photo credits: Marc Brenner

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